Sustainability has become a core part of Volkswagen AG’s corporate strategy, and it’s shaking up the company’s supply chain, processes and material selection. This presents an excellent opportunity for composite suppliers.

“We are seeing large corporations going against very small startups – and sometimes the startups have the more interesting materials for automotive applications,” says Timo Achtelik, a material engineer at Volkswagen AG.

Suppliers looking to get their foot in the door with Volkswagen will find their products must first pass through a four-step stage-gate process Volkswagen implemented in 2021. The steps include idea collection, a feasibility assessment, material testing and validation, and testing and validation of the material within a specific component.

Step 1: Idea collection – Suppliers, as well as Volkswagen team members from vehicle designers to construction engineers and material development engineers, are encouraged to suggest new materials. “We try to implement a process where every department works together and can push forward ideas,” Achtelik says.

Currently, Volkswagen has approximately 250 sustainable materials in its database to assess for potential use across all vehicle components, from seats and steering wheels to body panels and batteries. Companies not already serving as suppliers can submit suggestions to the Procurement Department’s Innovation Offices via innovation@volkswagen.de.

Step 2: Feasibility assessment – Next, material engineers assess the technical characteristics of the suggested materials in their database. This includes screening sustainability data and creating first-cost estimations. “Since sustainability is a fuzzy concept, we’ve tried to make it measurable,” Achtelik says.

Suppliers are asked to provide details on product composition that help classify the material within Volkswagen-set norms for post-consumer recycled materials, post-industrial recycled materials, renewable materials and virgin material. Material engineers also evaluate these characteristics in accordance with their internal sustainability goals.

“We always have to focus on the recyclability of the material, as well as our decarbonization and circular targets,” Achtelik explains. “A carbon fiber-reinforced plastic might lead to huge decarbonization measures, but at the end of the day we cannot recycle this material. We try to get composites that fulfill all targets into our cars.”

While Achtelik notes that the strength and light weight of CFRP will likely prove crucial for meeting overall sustainability targets, Volkswagen is also searching for renewable fibers used in conjunction with recyclable thermoplastic polymers. The company is also interested in biodegradable materials that can be recycled and even compostable on an industrial scale. One solution that Volkswagen is developing is a leatherette for vehicle interiors that uses coffee bean waste as a principal component – in this case to replace petrochemical-based plastics.